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The active voice is often better than the passive voice because it is direct. This makes it easier to understand and unambiguous.

With the active voice a subject does something to an object: Andy kicked the ball.

In the passive voice the object is acted on by the subject: The ball was kicked by Andy.

An active voice makes for tighter writing and easier reading. It is more personal and less formal.

Efficient writing

The passive sentence used six words while the active sentence needed only four. It also has simpler grammar. Active sentences are economic and clear.

Active voice phrases are easier to understand because they involve fewer stages. Think of it as fewer mental hoops to jump through. This becomes important in more complex sentences and longer pieces of text.

While active voice sentences are also easier to write, you might not always find this in practice. The good news is that writing active sentences helps organise your own thoughts. That way you’ll write clearer.

Confident words

Sentences written in the active voice read as if the writer is confident about the facts. In contrast, phrases and sentences written in the passive voice seem tentative or uncertain.

Bureaucrats and corporate managers often like hiding behind the passive voice’s ambiguities.

For example, in the phrase; “the claims have been analysed”, it isn’t clear who did the analysis. On the other hand; “We analysed the claims” is definite.

Things get worse when the writer resorts to using the word ‘it’ instead of ‘I’ or ‘we’:

In the sentence “It was decided no claims would be payable” the author is deliberately hiding behind the ‘it’ implying that authority comes from on high and not identifying the person who did the deciding.

There are times when you need to use the passive voice. We’ll look at them in another post.

Good writing is direct, clear and precise. It is unambiguous.

As a writer your goal is to get thoughts, swiftly and accurately, to your reader.

The best way to do this is by putting as few barriers as possible between your message and your audience.

Forget what you learnt about writing in school

You may have impressed teachers and exam markers with your grasp of obscure long words and clever grammar: in the real world simple, straightforward language works best.

This applies to all types of writing.

Think of your readers

Not all your readers are native English speakers. Not all them are highly educated. It’s unlikely you’ll impress those who are both with fancy words and cleverness.

  • If you have something worth saying (or writing) prefer short words over long ones. Words with Anglo-Saxon roots are easier to understand than ones from a Latin background. They are also easier to spell.
  • Use the smallest number of words needed. Where possible keep sentences and paragraphs short. A paragraph should contain a single idea.
  • Avoid jargon and foreign words.
  • Try to write in the everyday speech of ordinary people, but don’t overdo the chattiness and avoid slang.
  • Most of the time the active voice is better than the passive voice.
  • Learn how to punctuate.

Newspapers teach journalists to write using the inverted pyramid.

While t isn’t always the best approach, the inverted pyramid has worked for news writing since the days reporters telegraphed dispatches to editors. Today it works for online writing.

The structure echoes the classic essay structure you were taught — or should have been taught — at school.

The basic format:

  • Introduction — say what the piece is about; answer questions like who, what, where and when. You can also explain why at this point, although that can wait until later.
  • Then — expand, amplify;
  • Keep doing this until you’ve told the whole story. Make the most important points first then add more and more detail in each additional paragraph.

Traditional newspaper editors cut a story from the bottom if it needs to fill a specific space on a printed page.

Inverted pyramid online

The inverted pyramid structure, with each paragraph being progressively less important, means editors can easily remove the least important information first.

A news story written using the inverted pyramid structure can be cut at the end of any paragraph, even the first paragraph, and still be a self-contained story.

Online this means search engines pay more attention to the most important words. This helps people find your writing faster. It means they can zero in on the story and information they are looking for. Those opening paragraphs also make neat summaries for listings and similar online uses.

If you write your copy tight enough, your opening sentence will show up as the text in a Google search. That will help draw in readers.

The most important information goes in the first paragraph and each extra paragraph carries progressively less weight. That’s where the inverted pyramid name comes from: the foundation sits at the top, the less important details are at the bottom.

At school we were taught never to start sentences with “And”.

And yet newspaper journalists are trained to start a sentence with and. I do it all the time.

Not starting a sentence with And is one of the first so-called rules professional writers learn to break.

There’s nothing wrong with using “And” to begin a sentence or a paragraph. It is a great way to smooth the flow when you have a series of short sentences that would otherwise be too staccato for comfortable reading.

Go ahead, start a sentence with and

Only break this rule in moderation. Overusing “And” at the start of sentences quickly becomes boring.

As Keith Waterhouse points out in the excellent Daily Mirror Style, too many sentences starting with the word means your writing reads like the New English Bible.

I aim for only one “And” sentence start in a short piece of 300 words. For longer stories, you can get away with using it a few times – about once every 3-500 words. Control any urge to sprinkle sentences starting with “And” through your copy.

Other conjunctions

The school rule didn’t just apply to “And”, starting sentences with other conjunctions was also forbidden. As an aside, conjunctions are ‘joining’ words used to string phrases together – usually, but not always, to build more complex sentences.

There are plenty of alternative conjunctions to call on at the start of your sentences:

  • “But” is a great way to start a sentence that disagrees with the previous one.
  • “Yet” is a less-frequently used alternative.
  • “Or” is a great word for helping text flow.
  • Some people don’t like sentences to start with “However”. I would regard that as another rule worth breaking.
  • “Although” is a possibility. In practice, it can be better to shorten the word to “Though” at the start of a sentence.

A company can have many employees. Yet in law and in grammar it is a single entity.

You should always use singular verbs with companies, even when the company name sounds plural. The same applies to countries, political parties, governments and partnerships.

All are singular.

Some people think using they instead of it makes writing more personal. It can do. But that’s not the point.

Marketing departments like to describe companies as plural because they think that gives readers a point of connection. It makes us think we are dealing with human beings.

That may be true. Even if the company in question are a bunch of great people who really are fun to do business with, that’s not the point. It’s still a singular legal and grammatical entity. And anyway, we all know companies are staffed by humans.

Singular adds clarity

The problem here is that incorrect grammar makes your writing and, more important, your meaning, unclear.

There is another reason. If you read a company described as plural in print on a website, that’s a clear sign that the writer, editor or publisher is second-rate. Those of us who have worked for a long time in written communications know the writer or maybe whoever employed that writer, is unprofessional or, if that sounds too harsh, sloppy.

Most readers may not spot this as an error on a conscious level. Yet they know what professional writing looks like and many will subconsciously recognise the words in front of them are not professional, even if they can’t articulate why. They may have an inkling there is something wrong here.

When that happens they will be wary of what they read. Consciously or subconsciously they’ll think that if the writer doesn’t know enough to get simple grammar correct, it’s unlikely they did a professional job of fact-checking.

When you write they do you mean the company or all the people who work for the company? If you mean the employees, then make this clear. There’s nothing wrong with talking about, say, the staff at my local café. 

Resist all temptation to treat companies as plurals. That goes for countries, political parties, governments and other organisations.